They don’t make ’em like this place any more. In a sense, that is probably a good thing since Windsor Arena has narrow hallways, little parking nearby, an old-time scoreboard with no video capabilities and no seats with armrests. When you are playing in the oldest facility in the country hosting junior hockey, you are entitled to do things your way. Still, this is an arena worth visiting.
Year Opened: 1925
Owner: City of Windsor
Web Site: windsorspitfires.com
Anchor Tenant: Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Parking: None on site. There are two small lots nearby that charge for parking as well as some metered street parking
Address: 572 McDougall Av., Windsor, ON N9A 3H6
Directions from Canada: From 401 West, exit Dougall Road. This turns into Ouelette Avenue. Take to Ouelette to Wyandotte Avenue. Drive three blocks. Arena is on left hand side.
Directions from the United States: From the Tunnel, go right on Park to Goyeau. Right on Goyeau to Wyandotte. Turn left. Arena is two blocks on left-hand side. From the Ambassador Bridge, take the rightmost lane to Huron Church. Turn left on Wyandotte. Go 14 blocks. Arena is on left-hand side.
They don’t make ’em like this place any more. In a sense, that is probably a good thing since Windsor Arena has narrow hallways, little parking nearby, an old-time scoreboard with no video capabilities and no seats with armrests. When you are playing in the oldest facility in the country hosting junior hockey, you are entitled to do things your way.
Still, this is an arena worth visiting.
You better hurry, though. The Spitfires are due to move into a new arena on the east side of town in December 2008. It will have more seats, better parking and just about every modern convenience available in an arena. There is little question as to the need for such a building in this town of 216,000 just south of Detroit (you read that correctly) — it’s been there for some time. When folks finally became convinced there was also a need for such a place (the OHL team had dropped hints they might leave if it didn’t happen), the deal was done. While you can, though, Windsor Arena offers the rare chance to watch the game the way dear ol’ dad and dear ol’ granddad saw them. And those opportunities just aren’t readily available any more.
Windsor Arena was built in 1925 for $200,000. Although some folks complained about the size of the dressing rooms, it was considered a marvel because of its high ceiling and because it had the most seats of any arena in the province. And it is a marvel of sorts because, outside of a few paint jobs and a wooden area that can charitably be called a luxury suite, it’s the same old joint right down to the small dressing rooms.
The arena was christened with a boxing match in September 1925 that drew an estimated 10,000 fans. They have run a few concerts, pro lacrosse and the occasional circus through the place.
But first and foremost, it’s a place to play — and watch — shinny.
Hockey arenas are not like baseball parks. You can upgrade a few things here and there but you can’t shut the place down in the summer and make it into a new facility in the fall. The Windsor folks understand this. So, they took what they had and did the best they could with it. If you are looking for an arena with luxury seating (like, say, armrests), you’re out of luck. The best you can do is hope you are lucky enough to grab one of the mini-boxes that seat two people just a couple of rows off the ice. They cost $17 like every other seat in the place but, as this picture shows (the mini-box is green), you get your own space.
However, since the arena only has 23 rows to it at its highest point (and that is in the corners), you are going to get a great view of the game below you. On our visit, we were in the seventh row from the ice. In quiet moments (and they do have them in Canadian arenas), you could hear the players holler for passes and at the officials.
For those of you looking for luxury, there are four "suites" in the building. But one of them is used by VP/GM Warren Rychel and two others are season-long deals. That leaves a VIP suite for sale next to the press box that offers a great view high above the ice and also has a 52-inch TV. (One drawback: if you have to relieve yourself, you need to climb down a ladder and join the rest of the world beneath the stands.)
Spitfires games are part high-school athletics, part college athletics and part NHL games. At high-school games, one doesn’t expect luxury seating. One also expects such things as 50-50 raffles. (On the night of our visit, one fan walked away with several hundred dollars.) The college part of it comes when the team does things like sell horns, rarely seen in American facilities. Rob Gagnon, the Spits’ media-relations director, notes the thin plastic horns are a consistent bestseller. They are annoying, but you do get used to them and can ignore them. (The reason for this is the roof is so high that the noise tended to fade away. That’s the good news. The bad news is this also made it hard to hear the public address announcer at times.)
Everything inside is tight. The souvenir stand just inside the ticket door is … well … small. Claustrophobics are well-advised to stay out of the hallways underneath the stands because they are only 10-15 feet wide on either side of the building. But the Spits do make a lot of a little. Underneath the seats on one side of the building, they set up a table to sell more souvenirs, hold a silent auction and even propped up a TV for those waiting in line. Fans on the other side need to time their exits because two sliding gates close down about half the hallway for a time as the visiting team enters and leaves the ice. But once you understand there isn’t much choice, you can live with this small inconvenience.
The OHL has long been a training ground for future NHLers. Windsor has a rich history of such players — and one only has to look to the rafters to see it. (The team claims 77 alums who eventually made it to the NHL.) Marcel Pronovost, who played for the Spits in the 1940s and was a Hall of Fame defenseman who played in the NHL for 20 seasons, has a banner in the sky. (He later coached the team.) So does Ernie Godden, who set an OHL record that still stands when he scored 87 goals for the Spits in 1980-81. Godden only made it to the NHL for five games with Toronto but no matter. Like the college-football star who never did much in the NFL, he is still revered here. Future Detroit Red Wing Adam Graves also has his retired number hanging from the rafters.
OHL rosters generally tend to be in the 18-20-year-old category, some of whom are solid NHL prospects. (Aaron Snow was a third round pick of Dallas last year.) But the game is attracting young players who are leaving home earlier. So it is that Windsor has Taylor Hall, who doesn’t turn 16-years-old until December. Hall made a great first impression on Opening Night with a pair of goals. He also drew the attention of several young girls and their parents — although one suspects for different reasons.
The game itself generally isn’t as wide open as good NCAA hockey because the fighting rules mirror the NHL. A fighting penalty in a college game is an automatic expulsion. Here, you get five minutes and, if the local guy does well, appreciative applause.
The nature of the OHL is such that players generally don’t stay with teams more than two years. This year’s Windsor team has several players back from last season. So, a certain familiarity is evident that usually isn’t the case in junior games. This allows fans to address players like team captain Mickey Renaud by their first name as they head up ice with the puck. One got the feeling many of the regulars in the stands attending view the players as an extended part of their family. The cheering, which was done without any visual or electronic aids, had a very personal tone to it. All in all, it is rather charming.
Hockey has been trying to find a way to expand the gameday experience for some time now. In NHL arenas, this is fairly easy to accomplish — use the video part of the scoreboard to get the fans’ attention. As the above picture shows, the scoreboard here is a basic one so that trick doesn’t work. It was Opening Night when we were there. Paul McKeown, the rinkside public address announcer, did his best Michael Buffer imitation as he stood at center ice introducing players individually. The crowd played along but it seemed clear they were ready to watch and discuss hockey. Accordingly, when the roving p.a. announcer (most self-respecting sporting entities now have two mikemen) tried to get attention during stoppages, his efforts frequently fell flat. The people in the section where he was talking would generally notice while the rest of the building talked about power plays, the officials and whether the Toronto Maple Leafs might make the playoffs this season.
OHL games are played under NHL rules. There are two referees, two linesmen and each goal gets reviewed. When you play in a building that doesn’t have a video scoreboard, this is a little odd. When McKeown informed the crowd a Spitfire goal was under review, there was a little muttering but basically muted silence. When the referee finally pointed to center ice indicating it was a goal, the crowd cheered lightly but mostly nodded approval. The play was over and it time to move on. You need to pay attention here because games go quickly.
As noted before, arenas can’t be fixed up like baseball parks. Windsor Arena has no air conditioning, a fact that became very clear as the warm September night continued. By the third period, things were downright steamy and the ice seemed a bit mushy. The Erie goalie almost disappeared in the fog near the end of the game, reminding one of the 1975 Stanley Cup finals in Buffalo when play was stopped so players could skate around and helped get rid of the mist in the Auditorium, another air-conditioner-less facility. Locals assured us this was unusual — a combination of a warm night and a near-full building. Whatever the reason, the officials kept the game moving and nobody seemed to mind — just part of life in an 82-year-old building.
So, while you need to tolerate some inconveniences, a game at Windsor Arena is worth the effort it would take to cross the river from Detroit or drive in on Highway 401 from Chatham, London, or even Toronto.
Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle remembers being booed vigorously during his days as an opposing Junior A player. Yet he liked the old place so much he brought the Ducks there for a practice when they made a regular season visit to Detroit last season.
The new arena is 9 ½ miles away from the current home off a highway. It will have many nifty amenities this one does not — and never could — have. It is probable it will never be foggy. But one wonders if the locals will take it to warmly as they do this old place. Like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz," Windsor Arena devotees feel there is no place but home — even it means sitting close together in the stands.
Perhaps because things are so tight down below — or perhaps spectators came to watch the actual game — there is very little movement while the game is on. The small concession stands offer some excellent deals such as hot dogs and french fries for $2.50 while a decent size soda and a hot pretzel went for two bucks. We may have caught them on a bad day but the Zakalloni’s Pizza priced at $4 offered a lot of food but little taste. On the flip side, nachos went for $3 and you could smell the cheese from the other end of the aisle. Beer is not sold in the stands. But there is a small room off the Spits locker room where you can quench your thirst. However, you have to share with Gagnon, who also uses it to get his media notes together.
A good variety of items and rather inexpensive were available. Despite the small space, the team sells everything from pucks to T-shirts to sweatshirts to jackets to jerseys. The folks behind the counter were patient and pleasant. It’s one of the better stands we have ever visited.
Not much. McDougall Avenue, the street where fans enter, has no parking on either side all the way to the river. There is a small lot across the street from the arena that charges $2 but you better get there early. Pete’s Place, a small lot on Wyandotte Avenue, a half-block from the rink, charges $5. If you are in luck, you may find a parking meter nearby. You best bet is to find one of the city’s many bistros on Ouelette Street three blocks away. There is plenty of street and meter parking around most of these places and you can avoid a nasty traffic jam after the game.
Early home for NHL Games
The first hockey game of note at Windsor Arena took place in November 1925 when the defending NHL champ New York Americans, run by Lester Patrick, faced Victoria, the defending Western Canada Hockey league winners. At that time, the Stanley Cup was decided between the NHL champ and the WCHL champ. The Americans — who were based in Hamilton, Ontario at the time — won the league title but refused to play in the postseason because they hadn’t received promised bonuses. NHL president Frank Calder suspended the miscreants immediately. The Hamilton owner got sick of the whole thing and sold the team to New York interests.
Amid this intrigue, the game was scheduled: 7,200 fans attended and another 3,000 stood outside, awaiting word. New York won, 1-0, and declared themselves to be the unofficial Stanley Cup champs.
A year later, Windsor Arena became the temporary home of the Detroit Cougars, a newly minted NHL team. (Olympia Stadium was being built and wasn’t ready for action until the following season.) Ironically, the Cougars had moved from Victoria. The Cougars lost their opener, 2-0, to Boston, setting the tone for a season when they would garner just 28 points in 44 games. There were some complaints about ticket prices ($1.65 to $3.75 in the front seats). Detroit fans also objected to paying taxes to the United States and Canada for tickets purchased in Michigan. The Cougars eventually became the Detroit Red Wings.
The Chicago Black Hawks played a game here in 1928. The team had announced it was leaving the Coliseum for Chicago Stadium. Feeling wronged, the Coliseum owners kicked them out before the season ended. The team played the rest of the season on the road. They scheduled a game against the old Montreal Maroons in Windsor because they were already in the area for a game with Detroit. The game became noteworthy because Chicago scored a goal to end what is still the longest scoring drought in NHL history.
Eventually, the arena settled into its routine of amateur games, a trend that is maintained to this day. In 1945, the city picked up a franchise in the Junior A level Ontario Hockey Association. Despite making it to the finals twice, the teams folded in 1953. When the Spitfires folded, a new team — the Bulldogs — took up the mantle for a decade. (In the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens played a couple of exhibition games against them.) This team, a combination of semi-pros and amateurs, were very good, winning the Allan Cup in 1963. After spending a season in the International Hockey League, it folded. By 1971, the town was hungry for junior hockey. In 1971, the town placed a team in the Southern Ontario Junior Hockey league and eventually moved to the OHA (Junior A — it has had several different names) in 1975.
Success has been intermittent over the years. In 1988, the Spits won the OHL title and advanced to the finals of the prestigious Memorial Cup (Canada’s amateur version of the Stanley Cup) before losing to Medicine Hat. Recent times haven’t been as kind. Windsor has won just one playoff series in the past five years, missing the playoffs last season.
Currently, there are no plans to raze the building after the Spits leave. It will be used for open hockey and for youth teams. The University of Windsor and St. Clair College — the two universities in town — currently play in smaller buildings. Both did play there at one time and may decide to return now that more dates will be available.